Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Panama Part III - El Valle de Anton

Los autobuses in Panama run all the time because everyone rides - not very many people own their own cars.  You only have to wait for about 20 minutes at any one stop for one to pick you up.  But it didn't take long for us to figure out that the buses will pick you up wherever you are if you stand in the road and flag them down.  The 'long-distance' buses that go from town to town are pretty nice and usually have air conditioning, similar to greyhound buses here.  The rural buses are small and crowded and are often full of kids coming from or going to school.  It was often standing-room only. We were the only gringos traveling by bus (except going to Santa Catalina) - but it's a cheap and efficient way to travel.  I had no idea (with my limited spanish) if I could get us from Santa Catalina to El Valle de Anton, with five bus changes, but it worked! The above picture shows the lonely bus stop we were dropped off at along the Pan American Highway en route to El Valle.  As luck would have it, we crossed the highway and there was a bus on the other side waiting to go to El Valle.  It worked like clockwork.  Amazing. 

The bus pictured above is typical of the buses you see in the cities, called diablo rojos.  They are old American school buses painted crazy colors and lit up by equally crazy neon lights at night.  Each one of the buses is an original and the graffiti-style artwork is great.  You might see Jesus on the front of the bus and a pinup girl on the back.  Laura thinks that the Lander school buses should look like these.

The bus ride to El Valle was a bit nutty.  The roads were steep and windy as we climbed from sea level to the mountains. Plus the driver was texting every few seconds and talking on the phone.  He was also changing the radio station while holding his phone.  I don't know why he bothered because every station in Panama seems to play really bad rap music that all sounds the same.  When we got to El Valle we took a walk around town to find something to eat. 

En el mercado - we also found a yummy panadaria. 

This was a seven-dog stop. For entertainment we often counted the number of dogs at each bus stop. 

The picture below was taken during an evening walk and the light was so pretty as a storm was rolling in.  El Valle is fairly upscale - it's a small rural town where wealthy folks from Panama City come to escape the heat.  I liked that most of the fences in Panama are living fences.

The kids are missing in the above photo because we left the kids to their own devices (i.e. watching Sponge Bob in Spanish in the hotel room) and took a walk on the outskirts of town.  It was beautiful in El Valle as much of the rainforest here is protected. 

Ben on the rooftop with mountains around us.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit it but the main reason we went to El Valle was to go zip lining.  It's one of the best bird watching places in Central America but we only had a little time for birds which I do regret.  I figured the kids deserved a special treat with the zipping.

We hiked through a beautiful rainforest preserve for the zip lining and had a nice guide that took time to help us identify birds.

Ben has been wanting to do this for years, he was so excited!

The rainforest preserve had the best interpretive signs.  Much more entertaining than the US Park Service!  The golden frog is an endangered species once endemic to El Valle.  We did not see one, except in meditation on this sign.

Mis hijos - walking back to town from the rainforest preserve.  Time slows down when you don't have your own transportation, and that's a good thing.  The flowers were beautiful and we saw some amazing birds (Panama has some 944 species of birds!)

In front of our hotel which is above other stores and restaurants.  We had a pretty view of the surrounding mountains from the rooftop terrace.

From El Valle we got on a bus to go to Panama City for our last two days in the country.  The funny thing was that in Panama City we asked the bus driver to drop us off at a certain pizza place near a highway underpass (we weren't even sure of the name of the pizza place).  The hotel owner in El Valle said it would get us within walking distance to our hotel in the city.

Yes, that is a taxi cab behind us.  Did we take it? Of course not... we were on a quest.  But taxi cabs were usually cheap if you asked before getting in ¿Cuánto cuesta?

Wow, luxury digs in Panama!  From our humble beginnings at a hostel -- to a room with a spectacular view of Panama Bay and the canal.  But of course I'd take a hostel next to the surf and sand over an air-conditioned 5-star hotel any day!  I missed hearing the ocean at night...  But, watching the big cargo ships was way fun, as was the swimming pool.

The kids were excited to play in the pool with two kids from Canada that were near their same age.  They invented a game where they threw mangoes at Panama beer cans on the bridge that went over the pool.   The height of culture for our trip.
Up next, our canal transit ~ sailing up and over the continental divide!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Panama Part II - Surf

After kayaking at Coiba Island we returned to the mainland and stayed in Santa Catalina, a low-key surf town. 

Here is Laura, showing us how it's done.

Ben was rocking it after the first day too, but really both kids loved playing in the surf as much as they did actually surfing!
Meanwhile, back at the ranch. We stayed at Rancho Estero for $55/night.  We had a shared outdoor kitchen - which I really liked. There are only four little thatch cabins and everyone we met there was super nice.  Unbelievably there was a couple from Jackson Hole!  For the location and price it was great.  It is only a 15 minute walk to town and right above the 'beginners' beach.  The manager is keen on recycling and trying to spread the practice to the schools in Santa Catalina.
Cool recycled metal dinosaur art where we stayed. Ben loved them.  The estuary here was a great place to watch birds and at night there were huge bats skimming the surface of the water.



The only people on the beach - Scott and Ben walking out to surf.

View from our 'cabin by the sea'.  Our cabin had a great common space next to it and we played dominoes one evening while waiting for the rain to let up.  Also next to our cabin was a mango tree. Someday I'm going to have a mango tree in my yard, not sure where exactly that will be yet.

Estoy contento.
And here is Scott!  Scott and I got into a rhythm of going to surf in the morning until we felt too beat up and tired.  The kids either surfed too or played in the sand.  Then we'd go back to the 'ranch' for lunch, a beer, and a siesta.  The late afternoon and evenings were so pretty so we'd go back out and surf some more.

Dog finding shade on the road to town. The roads in Panama are very nice by the way - this one was just recently paved. One day while I was walking home from town I ran into the ice cream guy and bought two coconut ice cream popsicles
(for myself of course).


It was hot, sunny and steamy in Panama almost the entire time we were there. Then one night near the end of our time in Santa Catalina when we were walking to dinner the sky broke open with a vengeance.  It was an amazing tropical rainstorm with  continuous thunder and lightning.  We took shelter in an open-air restaurant that was closed and sat on top of the bar because it was the only place that the rain wasn’t blowing in on us.  We thought we would have to wait all night for the storm to subside because the lightning went on and on.  Finally we sprinted back to our place, dodging the big crabs that the rain brought out of the earth.  They were all over the road.  We didn’t have a flashlight and we were scared we would step on them – the ultimate gross out. 

Ben 'Jammin' Rio waiting out the storm.

These are the crabs that the rains brought out. 
 Back at our cabin I was afraid I would step on them with my bare feet in the middle of the night.

Just to show that it wasn't all fun and games - Ben and Laura doing homework (writing in their journals) one night.

We made lots of four-legged friends in Panama.  I especially loved these three dogs that were playing in the surf.  Pure dog joy!

Fresh pineapple for breakfast - the outdoor kitchen area. 

 Sweet lab that made our porch her home. Actually she probably adopts all the humans who stay here!

From an early morning walk on the beach with Scott - where the river meets the sea.


On the last morning in Santa Catalina we ate breakfast in town while waiting for the bus to come by.  It looks like we have a big pile of stuff but each of us carried a small day pack with our clothes and books and then we had one big bag full of snorkel gear.

It's hard to say goodbye and the kids really missed our Daisy Doodle back home.  While waiting for the bus they made friends with this scruffy terrier mix that reminded them of Daisy.  Of course it snuggled right up to Ben.  I tried to make sure they only snuggled with dogs that had collars AND flea collars.

Next stop, El Valle de Anton.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Panama Part I - Kayaking on Coiba Island

I always love venturing into the unknown and there were many unknowns on our trip to Panama.  For starters, we planned on taking public transportation across the country in order to save money and also for the experience.  I tried to figure out the bus schedules on the internet before the trip but was so confused and had so little time that I finally gave up and decided to leave things to chance.

The main part of our trip was a camping and kayaking trip on Coiba Island, a remote island off the Pacific Coast of Panama.  The island is the largest in Central America at 2,700 square kilometers.  The entire island and surrounding 38 smaller islands and waters have been preserved as a national park and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It's biological diversity is said to be as rich as the Galapagos Islands. In fact, it is part of the larger Galapagos Islands ecosystem. There are a number of endemic species and subspecies on the island and it is an amazing place for bird watching.  We were lucky to see some of the species unique to the island, like the Coiba howler monkey and the Coiba agouti.  The Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institute recently discovered 12 new coral species at Coiba!

We were warned that bugs could be a problem. I was also a little concerned about trying to paddle a double kayak with Ben or Laura in the front.  When Scott and I paddled in Alaska, the waters were generally calm and with both of us paddling the boat, it was pretty easy. 

I'll leave the pictures to tell the full story of how the trip unfolded....

Estamos acá remand en el Coiba Parque Nacional Coiba. 
The paddling was harder than it was in Alaska because we had currents to contend with and occasional wind.  We had several points to paddle around in order to wind in and out of the bays.  I usually had Laura in my boat and the boys paddled together.  At one point Laura and I were paddling in open water around a point.  It was the hardest paddling I've ever done as we were going against the current and into a strong headwind.  We weren't making progress and at times we were going backwards. The rest of our group were out ahead of us which  made me feel a little panicky.  Finally I came up with the idea of counting off 20-30 really hard strokes. So Laura and I counted together and before we knew it we were around the point.  I had to admit I was getting nervous as the point was rocky and windy and I thought we'd either get swept out to sea or have to turn back to camp.  Funny enough when we rounded the corned into the calm bay Laura said, "let's beat everyone to the beach."  So we paddled like mad women to catch up with the group and were the first ones on the beach.

The reward for a hard paddle:  a pretty beach all to ourselves.  We also kayaked to some small islands where we snorkeled and swam.  The snorkeling was very good as the fish diversity was amazing.  The coral on the Pacific side isn't as impressive as in the Caribbean but it was beautiful just the same.

Coconut for breakfast.

 Tenemos suerte.

Ben and Laura packing the boats.

This was taken near sunset and to the right is the little island we snorkeled around at low tide. 

Tired from paddling and playing.  You'll notice the tent is unzipped.  According to our guide we were very lucky.  The bugs were horrendous just the week before we were there but we had no problems at all during our trip, except for a few sand fleas that bit our feet and ankles in the evening.

Laura in front of the mangrove forest.  I saw a Coiba agouti and its baby in the mangroves one morning.

Relaxing at one of the beaches we kayaked to.

Ben en la playa.  One night under the full moon, I went down to the sea to rinse the dishes and there were a million tiny little blinking lights in the sand and water -- the phytoplankton in the sea were bio luminescent.  It was so cool.

This small island was great to snorkel around at low tide.  It was a short swim or kayak from our camp.  The kids played on the island while Scott and I snorkeled.  They had fun poking around in the tide pools and getting grossed out with the sea slugs.

On one of our day trips we hiked around a point to get to trail that went through the rainforest.

Línea de la costa hermosa y selva tropical.

Monkey print in the sand!  We had Coiba howler monkeys and white-face capuchin monkeys at our camp.  One night when I couldn't sleep I was staring at the full moon overhead through the tent netting and a group of monkeys came right over the tent.  I could see them in the tops of the palm trees, silhouetted against the yellow moon.  It felt like I was dreaming.

Snorkeling in the mangroves at high tide. 

~ La mariposa ~
 Every morning while we ate breakfast there was a big migration of these butterflies down the beach past our camp.  There were hundreds and hundreds of them!  There were also tiny frogs at a backwater near our camp.  One evening a mangrove hawk (common black hawk) was hunting the frogs from a perch above where we gathered to eat dinner.

Eating breakfast at camp.

The boys - Ben was a super paddler too!  You can see how clear and beautiful the water was -- we saw lots of fish, some dolphin, and many sea turtles.

Acampa cerca del océano.  The view from our tent.

Our camp between the sea and the forest.  It was luxury camping for us as we went with a guide who provided all the food and camping gear!  One night we had the most delicious pineapple curry for dinner.

Laura, the super paddler.  I was so proud of her. Counting our paddle strokes started to be a game for Laura and she drove us hard.  We got up to 50 in a row with only 5 rest seconds.  And she's still smiling!

If you are interested, we booked our trip through Michael at http://fluidadventurespanama.com/ and were very happy!